Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who has died of cancer aged 87, was one of the extraordinary literary phenomena of the 20th century. The son of a telegraph operator, born in a small town in provincial Colombia in 1927, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 and was the most influential and most widely read writer in Spanish of our era. Many believe that he was the greatest Hispanic novelist since Cervantes, and that his influence will be as far-reaching as that of his Spanish precursor.
He was the first writer from the Third World to attain such universal acclamation and one of the few 20th-century writers anywhere to achieve the kind of critical and popular esteem that came to writers like Balzac or Dickens at the dawn of the modern age. Moreover his magical realist writing lay at the very heart of the so-called "Boom" of Latin American narrative in the past 50 years and his close relationship with figures like Fidel Castro, François Mitterrand, Felipe Gonzalez and Bill Clinton made of his life an unusually rich and illuminating story.
Despite his rise to giddy heights, however, he always proclaimed loyalty to his origins: "Never, come what may, will I ever forget that in the truth of my soul I am nothing more and nothing less than one of the 16 children of the telegraph operator of Aracataca."
Colombia used to have a reputation as the most conservative and traditional of Latin America's larger republics, the place where the purest Spanish was spoken, where the Catholic religion was most venerated, and where the old colonial ways, and their 19th-century prolongations, were most tenacious. The 20th century, with its successive waves of political, social and economic disaster, did not entirely dissipate this vision in the minds of Colombians themselves, though the rest of the world now saw the country through more violent images of drug-trafficking and civil dislocation. Garcia Marquez lived through this convulsive transformation and his work bears testimony to it.
Gabriel Jose Garcia Marquez was born in the small tropical town of Aracataca, near the northern Caribbean coast, in March 1927. The child lived with his grandparents until he was eight and only really began to know his own mother when he was six or seven years old and his father much later: he always said that his grandfather was the most important person in his childhood and that after the old man's death - the boy was eight - nothing of real consequence would ever happen to him again. Nostalgia for this lost patriarchal world in small-town tropicana would do much to shape the boy's emotional development in the years to come.
Now the whole northern region of Colombia has taken on a mythological aura and Garcia Marquez's fantasies have begun to take over reality in the same way that his literary hero Faulkner's works seemed to invent the American Deep South. After his grandfather's death Gabriel was sent off to the Jesuit school in the steamy coastal city of Barranquilla and later to a secondary boarding school in the Andean city of Zipaquira, near Bogota. (His first impression of Bogota - cold, wet, hostile and conservative - remained with him all his life.)
There in Zipaquira, intensely lonely and homesick, he read voraciously across the whole span of world literature - Sophocles' Oedipus Rex being the single most enduring influence - while his teachers, many of them frustrated Marxists, imbued him with the tenets of historical materialism.
In 1947 Garcia Marquez, now 19, travelled to Bogota and enrolled as an impoverished student in the Law Faculty at the National University. On April 1948 the Liberal leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated, provoking the "Bogotazo" uprising and initiating 20 years of social dislocation known as "the Violence", whose reverberations still haunt Colombia today. Like many others, Garcia Marquez fled Bogota and the Violence when his boarding house burned down, rejoined his family in the coastal city of Cartagena, and resumed his studies there.
In 1950 he moved back to Barranquilla, where he had studied as a boy, to work on the staff of El Heraldo. There he joined a number of writers and hard drinkers known as the "Barranquilla Group". When, later in life, he said that he only continued writing so that his friends would love him more, he had these friends - "the world's biggest piss-takers" - mainly in mind. There, too, he met again Mercedes Barcha, a pharmacist's daughter whom he had first seen years before, and who would eventually become his wife.
While living in a local brothel - on Crime Street - in 1952, he wrote his first novel, Leafstorm (finally published in 1955), based, like all his early work, on childhood reminiscences of a small town which in his fiction would be known as Macondo. ("What's been most appreciated about me is my imagination. In fact I'm a terrible realist. I don't invent anything, everything I write down is already there.")
In 1953 another young writer, Alvaro Mutis, persuaded him to return to work for El Espectador in Bogota. He rose rapidly to become one of Colombia's leading journalists, famous for his extended chronicles on matters of political or cultural interest, during the height of the Violence. Always a convinced socialist and anti-imperialist, Garcia Marquez had been paying subscriptions to the Communist Party since his Barranquilla days, and now briefly joined a party cell in 1955, but left after a few months due to difficulties with the party's position on the relation between politics and literature. "The duty of a writer - the revolutionary duty, if you like - is simply to write well," he would later insist.
In July 1955 Garcia Marquez left Colombia for the first time. He had just published Leafstorm, which sank without trace, and he had also run into difficulties with the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship over allegations of corruption made in his articles. He spent a week or two in Switzerland, several months in Rome at the Cinecitta Experimental Film School, where he studied film-making, and then moved to Paris at the end of the year.
Soon after he arrived he discovered that his newspaper had been closed down by the military dictatorship and he was left with only his return fare. Instead of going back he moved into the Hotel de Flandre, Rue Cujas, hungry and waiting for a pay cheque that never came, and devoted himself full-time to writing In Evil Hour and No One Writes to the Colonel. By January 1957 the two books - both immersed in the tropical Colombia of his childhood - were finished; and both left him with an aching sense of disappointment, as if he had really intended to write something else. He had a year-long affair with a Spanish actress, Tachia Quintana, which left a mark on several of his books.
In the summer of 1957 Garcia Marquez visited Eastern Europe, including East Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. The result was 10 long articles published in Caracas and Bogota, notable particularly for his disappointment at the grey, already decadent world of actually existing socialism and his horrified fascination with the "Kafkaesque" figure of Stalin.
In October 1957 he travelled to London, hoping to learn English, and spent two months shivering in a hotel in South Kensington. In March 1958 he made a brief return to Barranquilla to marry Mercedes and arranged for the publication of No One Writes to the Colonel. After that he took his new bride back to Caracas where, writing only on Sundays, he worked intensively on the stories of Big Mama's Funeral, which he had begun in London.
In 1959, as an early supporter of the Cuban Revolution, he and his friend Plinio Mendoza were invited to open the Colombian office of the new Cuban press agency Prensa Latina. His first son Rodrigo was born on 24 August, baptised by his old student friend Camilo Torres, now a Catholic priest. There he completed Big Mama's Funeral. In late 1960 he travelled to Cuba and spent three difficult months working in the central office of Prensa Latina, and then moved to New York early in 1961, at a time of massive hostility in the US towards the Cuban revolutionary regime. In May however he and Mendoza resigned after months of pressure from Stalinist elements struggling for power within the new Cuban government and left the city of the skyscrapers.
Heading back to Colombia, the writer and his family arrived in Mexico on the day that Hemingway died in 1961 and stayed there, in a country that performed a sort of balancing act, a half-way house between Cuban revolution and Colombian reaction. He found what jobs he could -popular magazines, advertising agencies - to maintain his family at a time when their second son Gonzalo was born, on 16 April 1962. (Gonzalo would later become a graphic designer and painter in Mexico City and Paris and Rodrigo would become a successful film director in Hollywood.) In 1988, thinking back on all that, Garcia Marquez reflected: "For a long time things did not work out for me - almost the first 40 years of my life. I had financial problems; I had work problems. I had not made it as a writer or anything else. It was a difficult period emotionally and psychologically; I had the idea that I was like an extra, that I did not count anywhere."
In January 1965, tortured by the failure of his literary ambition and determined never to write fiction again, Garcia Marquez was driving his family down to Acapulco for a vacation when a much quoted miracle occurred. The first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude came to him as if in a dream and he turned the car around, went back to the city and his house at San Angel, and began to write. He shut himself away for 18 months, leaving Mercedes to cope with minor matters like money, and composed Latin America's most famous novel of the century.
The book appeared in Buenos Aires in June 1967 and was an overnight sensation. Its opening line, "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant afternoon when his grandfather took him to discover ice", is now almost as famous as the opening of Cervantes's Don Quixote: "In a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived not long ago a knight..." The Times gave the book the whole front page of its Saturday review in June 1970, reproducing the first chapter, with a psychedelic illustration reminiscent of Sergeant Pepper -which appeared in the same month as One Hundred Years - or Yellow Submarine. John Berger would write that One Hundred Years of Solitude was a book which "speaks to those who are aware of the scale and turbulence of the struggles and tragedy of history."
Impoverished, with all the furniture pawned, just a few months earlier, Garcia Marquez was now in a position to contemplate living off the proceeds of his writing. In October the family moved to Barcelona. The great Catalan city, through the Seix Barral publishing house and the literary agency of Carmen Balcells, his representative since 1965, was at the very centre of the 1960s publishing boom, despite the apparently unlikely authoritarian context. Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose Donoso would also take up residence in the Catalan capital not long after, and Garcia Marquez - "Gabo" to his new friends - was soon acquainted with leading writers and intellectuals. Translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude were meanwhile appearing in many parts of the world.
In 1972 Garcia Marquez won the Romulo Gallegos Prize in Caracas and caused a storm by donating all the money to the MAS (Movement for Socialism) party of ex-guerrillas, to which he was affiliated. However the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973 convinced him that he was still not doing enough politically. He began by founding a new left-wing magazine in Bogota, Alternativa. The magazine was short-lived but Garcia Marquez was undeterred and went back to his uncompleted project, The Autumn of the Patriarch, a novel based on dictators like Gomez, Trujillo, Duvalier, Ubico and Franco (though when an old friend read it in 1975 he commented that he had "never known such an autobiographical novel.")
In 1978 Garcia Marquez travelled to Washington with a new friend, Graham Greene ("his books had taught me how to decipher the tropics"), as guests at the ceremony to witness the signing of the Canal Treaty between the US and Panama. By now the Colombian was a clandestine roving ambassador, constantly travelling around Central America in the search for a negotiated peace. In March 1981 he was forced to flee Colombia under diplomatic protection, because it was rumoured that the army was about to arrest him for alleged links with the M-19 guerrilla movement. This happened just before his new novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, appeared in the bookshops. In Colombia alone 1,050,000 copies were printed for distribution in Latin America, an all-time record, and when it appeared in the US in 1983, Newsweek named it the book of the year.
In October 1982 Marquez was filming with the Brazilian director Ruy Guerra in Mexico when news came that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, at the age of 54. He was now in a position no previous Latin American writer - indeed, any writer from the Third World - had ever experienced, with the kind of international influence and prestige intellectuals had rarely wielded since the age of Victor Hugo or Zola. His comings and goings from Mexico were routinely reported in the national press and he became a household name among the so-called chattering classes the world over. Writers from other countries were beginning to produce "magical realist" novels clearly influenced by the great Colombian master, most notably Salman Rushdie with Midnight's Children and Shame.
In 1985 Love in the Time of Cholera appeared, dedicated to Mercedes. It tells the story of an impossible love affair, in an earlier and more peaceful Colombia, between two septuagenarians and has a happy ending. Garcia Marquez later boasted that it was especially popular with people going on journeys: "on almost every jet circling above us someone is reading Cholera."
By now he was heavily involved in financing the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema in Cuba, where he spent several months each year, and where he was a regular at the December Film Festival. He was also striving to encourage a form of serious soap opera to educate the Latin American masses, and considered that in many respects his Love in the Time of Cholera pointed the way. Mario Vargas Llosa remarked that Garcia Marquez was a man who saw reality anecdotally, one instinctively opposed to theorising and generalisations. He rarely reread his own books, and deliberately destroyed the notes and manuscripts of One Hundred Years of Solitude. He showed remarkably little interest in what critics say about his writing - indeed, he always feared being conditioned by what they might say about him.
In 1989, as the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall began to develop, The General in his Labyrinth appeared, an inevitable work in retrospect, about the great liberator Simon Bolivar, yet another Garcia Marquez protagonist trapped in his own power, his own celebrity, his own myth and his own illusions, all liquidated by death. Despite the demystifying approach Garcia Marquez insisted: "His dream remains valid - to have a united and autonomous Latin America."
To coincide with the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Spain's "discovery" of the Americas in 1992, he published a collection of stories, Strange Pilgrims, which took an ironic view of the relation between the New World and the Old. He followed this up in 1994 with another historical novel about love, Of Love and Other Demons, a drama about the affair between a teenager accused of witchcraft and a Catholic priest in late 18th-century Cartagena. In 1996, News of a Kidnapping was a kind of documentary novel about the wave of political kidnappings which had hit the country at the beginning of the 1990s and was another international success.
In 1999 Garcia Marquez fell ill with lymphoma - he had had an earlier brush with cancer in 1992 - and retired from public life for almost three years while recovering from the illness. He had been talking for decades about writing his memoirs and had promised they would run to six volumes but he only managed to produce the first volume, concentrated now on the first volume, which he would entitle Living to Tell the Tale. It became an international best-seller on its publication in 2002. In the following years Garcia Marquez began to appear again in public but no longer gave interviews to an always insatiable press wrote one last novel, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), a somewhat disconcerting and indeed controversial story of the relationship between a 90-year old bachelor and a 14-year-old virgin. Even this book was well reviewed, for the most part, though it lacked the brilliance and the hypnotic power of earlier works.
In 2007 the Spanish Royal Academy marked Garcia Marquez's 80th birthday with a special homage at its conference in Cartagena in Colombia, where the writer had had a large mansion built by the seashore. Implicitly comparing him to Cervantes, the academy published a special edition of a million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The King of Spain, ex-president Bill Clinton of the US and several ex-presidents of Colombia were in attendance, as well as literary friends like Carlos Fuentes.
Much of his effort in later years was devoted to ambitions he nurtured in his early years as a journalist. A rarity among artists and intellectuals, he always put his money where his mouth was. He sought to narrow the gap between popular culture - in music, journalism, film and television - and serious literature, as a means of advancing the cause of Latin American identity and diffusing its continental culture.
And he always strove to give Latin America control over the production of its own history, both by setting up newspapers and magazines and by encouraging serious academic enterprises. Having already created the Film and Television School in Havana, he used the proceeds of his novels in the late 1980s and early '90s to establish a Latin American Journalism Foundation in Cartagena. Despite his loyalty to Castro and Cuba, he was, without doubt, the best-loved novelist in the history of Latin America and will always be inseparable from the continent's identity.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writer: born Aracataca, Colombia 6 March 1927; Nobel Prize for Literature 1982; married Mercedes Barcha Pardo (two sons); died Mexico City 17 April 2014.
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